RP401 – Empathy

Session Readings



While often discussed, the term empathy is not always well defined. Empathy goes far beyond having a good bedside manner.  Among many definitions, one of the most concise and accurate is: “the intentional efforts made to understand and share the feelings of another”.

Developing one’s empathy is critical for healthcare providers – not only because it is associated with less burnout, but also because empathy is significantly associated with improved clinical outcomes. While some might perceive empathy (or its lack thereof) to be innate, the good news is that experts agree that empathy is not innate to an individual, but is rather a skill that can be developed. To that end, during this session we will reflect on our past clinical experiences, identify challenges to our being empathic, and consider ways in which each of us can work to enhance our empathy.

Aside: It is worthwhile to point out the importance of empathy for the biopsychosocial model of  healthcare delivery. This model states that biological (which includes the physiologic and pathophysiologic processes of the body), psychological (which entails thoughts, emotions, and behaviors), and social (socio-economical, socio-environmental, and cultural) factors, all play a significant role in human functioning in the context of disease or illness, including decisions about accessing healthcare and whether or not an individual elects to carry out a treatment plan discussed during a visit. 


  1. Understand how empathy is different from sympathy
  2. Learn to become more attuned to patients and the environment in which that interaction takes place
  3. Develop an awareness of the assumptions and biases we bring to patient interactions


Prior to the session, please review the above media links:

  1. Start with the animated short clip, “What is empathy?”
  2. Then watch the TED talk, “Compassion and the true meaning of empathy.”
  3. Last, listen to the podcast 23 weeks, 6 days.

During our session, we will be exploring empathy and ways to further our ability to bring more of it into our practice. Begin to think of one or more patients/experiences you have had during which you either felt great empathy or had difficulty feeling or expressing empathy. Be honest with yourself, this is not a skill that is easy to exhibit each and every time you care for a patient. As a group we will explore the following questions:

  1. What is empathy and how is it expressed?
  2. What is active listening? In  what ways can it facilitate, or conversely, impede quality care?
  3. To what extent are we at risk for assuming we understand our patients’ needs and/or motivations?
  4. How are thoughts different from emotions?
  5. Are emotions  OK in the practice of healthcare?
TEDEd_rgb9e827c-330x77Compassion and the true meaning of empathy Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax works with people at the last stage of life (in hospice and on death row). She shares what she's learned about compassion in the face of death and dying, and a deep insight into the nature of empathy.
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RSA ShortWhat is Empathy? An Animated RSA Short In this animated short, Dr. Brene Brown explains how empathy enhances connection while sympathy promotes disconnection.
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RadioLab23 Weeks 6 Days When Kelley Benham and her husband Tom French finally got pregnant, after many attempts and a good deal of technological help, everything was perfect. Until it wasn't. Their story raises questions that, until recently, no parent had to face… and that are still nearly impossible to answer. This hour, we spend the entire episode on the story of Kelley and Tom, whose daughter was born at 23 weeks and 6 days, roughly halfway to full term. Their story contains an entire universe of questions about the lines between life and death, reflex and will, and the confusing tug of war between two basic moral touchstones: doing no harm...and doing everything in our power to help.
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Session originally created by: Adam Saperstein | | |